Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Star Trek, a computer that never got built and AI & ML

Growing up, Star Trek was my favorite TV show. The characters still come alive every time I think about the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise and bring a twinkle in my eye! I remember a friend of mine actually managed to lead several of us kids into believing that we could build a similar computer that could “do things as per our wish”. Many months of collecting old boxes, buckets, waste material, iron roads, used circuit boards led to no outcome and we abandoned the effort on a summer afternoon after one of the parents found the kids surrounded by garbage and junk strewn all over the corner of our neighborhood.

Today a lot of what we saw in Star Trek is a reality, though I am still waiting for the day when I could just ask Scotty to beam me up – I know it’s only some years away when we could do interplanetary travel in no time.

Artificial Intelligence(AI) and Machine learning(ML) have led to a new phase where we have the ability to automate and let machines do tasks that earlier were done by humans. Cars can drive themselves based on the interactions they can have with objects around them, how to navigate a bump, what to do when another vehicle swirls into the lane etc. all the things that we as drivers have heck of a time managing and multi- tasking with, machines are today able to do it accurately where they can not only bring efficiency but also let humans focus on other important things – some of us still are debating what those other important things are going to be when this becomes mainstream!

AI and ML at its intersection, Infosys is doing this with earnest with our own platforms like IIP, Mana, IDP, IKP and others – things that required human intervention, human effort to do tasks are being taken over if not completely to a great extent by the platforms. Our partners have made significant investments in similar platforms – IBM’s Watson, Microsoft’s work on Azure Machine Learning etc. are in this space which is beginning to get quite crowded. These platforms are changing something fundamental – the way we deal with data, both by drawing insights as well as using those insights for decision making and taking actions based on the decisions, the whole nine yards, if you will. Dealing with data can pose several challenges given the complexity, variety and size of the data (Big Data would ring a bell!). The key is accessing all that data in the right manner, right format, at the right time, analyzing it to draw the right insights and doing this in a very short span of time. For example IBMs Watson can consume the equivalent of a million books per second, talk about the size of the data. The technical problems of ingesting data, working with it etc. are getting solved with innovative ways every single day and I am happy to share some of our teams have been part of some of the solutions here.

Machine learning has the ability to let machines learn without being explicitly programed! While the obvious use cases of Machine Learning are known and plenty, the fact that this can help us create smarter applications is what excites me the most. Google leverages Machine Learning to improve its search results and is used extensively as part of its search algorithms. A lot of these advances are driven by the work in the Open Source world, communities are creating new and innovative frameworks and products to solve some of the complex problems in this space. It is also coming at a fraction of a cost today, for example a slice of some of the best computing capabilities could now be easily affordable to even an amateur developer and therefore further democratizes the whole process of development where anyone with an idea can add on to what is already being done by others.

What is interesting is to see how all this continues to change the way we work in our day to day lives. What would a typical team member’s or manager’s work day look like when some of these advances are available to every one of us as basic productivity tools in our work space. Do we even need to come to office to access these. Do we need to be driven to the office by humans. Do we need to write programs any more. Do we just explain the problem in simple English to our digital assistant (Siri, Cortana …though my own experience with Cortana tells me that it thinks of me as someone deeply interested in negative, crime related news stories and in the early days used to spam me with those and only those…) and by the time we are back from the lunch break, it has already solved the problem for us or done the task that we gave. These and many more possibilities lay in front of us today, the more we dive into the future, the better it looks to me! 

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

This teachers day the 10 lessons from teachers and mentors...

While gyaan (Knowledge) is not the most revered word amongst many today since it largely has a connotation of a boring lecture, unwanted sermon to the reluctant. This teachers day, I spent time thinking about my “Teachers and Mentors” and what I learned from them. The list is long as there are many who have helped shape my thinking and approach to things on not only how I work but to some extent also how I live. All this has happened through the knowledge (gyaan) that was absorbed directly or indirectly and therefore the importance of gyaan cannot be underestimated. While a lot of learnings have come from individuals and institutions there are also learnings from things like sports that demonstrated the unfailing characteristics of how a team is always above the individual and the ability to be down but not out.

Here are some of the things that I have learned from my teachers and mentors over the years:-

1.       Right Values as a foundation
o   Values form the building blocks and provide for a sound foundation to build up on and there for are far more important for sustained success than anything else. In fact longevity in a career and an organization can be built on top of a foundation of shared values that match well for both the individual as well as the organization. Organizations like Infosys have been built on this very foundation.
2.       Think Big, Experiment and create a vision for others to follow
o   Seldom have incremental things enthralled people to put their all into it. The important aspect is to see that there is enough directional validation and move rapidly to create an aspirational view of the future. People like to see the big picture and then follow through to achieve it. While course corrections happen along the way as you feverishly and passionately experiment, it’s important that there is a vision created for everyone to see right up front and there is tangible movement towards the end goal consistently.
3.       Challenge the limits
o   Hindsight is 20/20 or so goes the saying. There are enough tales of regret where people have failed to live up to their potential and capabilities and many a times it was just the reluctance to try their best, try harder, challenge themselves and give it their best shot. Success and failure may be out of our control but putting our best effort and constantly challenging ourselves to do the best is definitely in the individuals hands and can never come in the way or be allowed to be put under a question mark.
4.       Do it and learn it for ever
o   This was one of my earliest lessons, whatever I read and heard, it was always insisted that we try things out on our own. In the manufacturing world, it meant standing in front of a machine that had cylinders with temperatures in excess of 120 degrees and in our world it means for some of us zero distance to code, clients etc. The best way to learn something is to get in to it and do it, if something does not kill, it may be worth trying after all!
5.       Invest in good people even when constrained
o   Our biggest asset is our people and I never have had doubts about this another early learning. The most important investment therefore is on people – good people. It also means having fast and effective processes to identify, nurture and invest on the right talent by challenging them to push themselves towards the shared aspirations and goals.
6.       Be the change
o   Quite often what we expect from our teams is not what we ourselves commit and follow, this could be simple operational things like being on time, submitting reports, timesheets to more tactical and strategic things like picking up a new focus area that is business relevant each cycle. It’s important to not only talk but also walk the talk ourselves before we expect others to follow.
7.       Build strong networks
o   In the knowledge economy investments are made and deals are done based on references and the network that you are in, it can’t be more compelling in our times. It’s important to have the right connect and this does not remain restricted to leadership roles anymore, today an architect or a developer would benefit equally from the network as much as anyone else in the leadership roles.
8.       Have no room for negativity
o   Negative thoughts and the impact they create can be devastating to the individuals personal health, wellbeing and overall growth. It also saps a lot of energy from everyone around. It’s therefore important to have a positive frame of mind irrespective of the situation and also ensure that you have good number of positive people around. Try and stay away from skeptics, gossip mongers and negative folks as much as possible, it can be one of the best things you can do to yourselves.
9.       Create a culture of improvement
o   Each year (every couple of quarters if possible) try and pick up an area for improvement either on the personal front or on the professional front. I have personally benefited from this over the past few years, I have been able to improve my work life (became an early riser), my communication (especially presentation skills), writing ability and several others. It’s important to invest in our own selves and continue the process of learning through simple and effective goals for improvement.
10.   Compassion for social causes and helping others
o   Our bond to the roots and the society around us is what keeps us grounded and it’s important that as we grow in our careers and as humans we do our bit for the society. It need not always be through donating money, while that is the easiest for most of us to do and there is no harm if we want to start that way, but stay focused on causes that matter and contribute in any small way that you can through your expertise, effort as a volunteer, donations etc.

Like many of you, my early influencers include my teachers and professors, cousins and friends who through their talk and actions inspired me to not only challenge myself but also be at it in spite of failures. Once I joined the work force, the early influences came from managers who had tremendous knowledge of their craft and specialization but were always willing to share voluntarily and that made a lot of difference. Today the learnings come from all round 360 degrees, our managers and leaders continue to influence, at the same time there are new people that bring something strong and credible to the table that influences one and the takeaways are powerful enough to ignore at your own peril. Last but not the least, not to forget some of our family members who aren’t behind in what they teach us every single day.

Who do you think are the key influencers in your life and how have they influenced you? Do drop a note and I will be happy to discuss with you.